Novak Djokovic is his sport’s most stubborn obstacle – a great wall of skill, cunning and grit. And yet there were times in the US Open final on Sunday when it appeared he might actually yield as he stood hunched over, banging on his thighs in a bid to jumpstart his legs. At one point during a torturously long second set against Daniil Medvedev – “the hardest physically grueling set I’ve had to play,” he told CBS on Monday – Djokovic was scrambling so hard to catch up with the Russian’s groundstrokes that he lost his grip and his racket went flying. When Medvedev took his own tumble and lay on the ground to catch himself, Djokovic crossed the net to check on him. Before offering Medvedev a helping hand, it seemed like Djokovic might want to lie down next to his opponent to catch a breath.
On paper, Djokovic’s straight sets victory over Medvedev makes it look like becoming the oldest US Open winner was a breeze. But in reality he couldn’t wait for it to be over. “That’s why I didn’t celebrate maybe as I did in Roland Garros or fall to the floor or jump out of joy,” he said after the final. “I was just so relieved when I saw his forehand in the net.”
The victory was the third grand slam tournament the Serb has won this year and equals Margaret Court’s 24 career major titles. One shudders to think of how much further ahead he would be if Covid had never happened and he didn’t accidentally hit a US Open line judge in the throat in a fit of pique in 2020.
Unlike Court, though, who ruled back in the days when her home Open was a glorified national championship, Djokovic somehow succeeded during an era that looked like it would be defined by the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But now that Djokovic has a two-slam lead on Nadal, and Federer is retired, the question is no longer how many more titles he will win than those two. It’s how much longer the 36-year-old can conceivably keep this up.
Don’t ask his coach, Goran Ivanišević. The 2001 Wimbledon champion, who peaked late in his career, ultimately hung up his racket after turning 33 – three years younger than Djokovic is now. Ivanišević admits he does not have Djokovic’s fanatical drive to win.
“I cannot say that we are all like that from the Balkans,” Ivanišević said after Sunday’s final, “because we are not. He’s something that, who knows when [another] is going to be born, you know, a sportsman like that.”
Medvedev is an extraordinary talent in his own right – he vanquished Djokovic in straight sets to claim the 2021 US Open title. After losing the rematch this time around, the 27-year-old had to laugh about the idea of comparing himself to the pro who embraced him when he was still a junior player. “What are you still doing here, come on,” Medvedev joked, addressing Djokovic in the post-match interview on Sunday. “I feel like I have not a bad career if I had 20 titles. You have 24 grand slams. Wow.”
It’s a feat made more impressive when you consider Djokovic didn’t come into the game with a family pedigree and came of age in a war-torn country, a story he circled back to repeatedly over the course of the last two weeks. “The last thing you want to think about is supporting maybe your child in an expensive sport,” he said. “It was more about bringing the bread to the kitchen table.”
It was only after Djokovic won his first major title in Melbourne, while clinging on to the No 3 world ranking through three seasons, that he realized he was allergic to gluten. That discovery triggered a devotion to health and wellness that rivals Tom Brady’s dubious TB12 Method. The dividends were hard to miss on Sunday night. For all his apparent physical struggles, he still managed to out-retrieve Medvedev on the long rallies and end other exchanges more quickly by crossing the service line. In all, Djokovic won 37 of 44 points at the net while Medvedev approached half as many times. “I should’ve been less stubborn and go forward earlier in the match,” Medvedev said. “I only started doing it a little bit in the third set. But the match was a different story [by then].”
When it was over, Djokovic made the expected climb up to his box to celebrate with his team, but even there he allowed himself a moment to sit and let his trainer, Marco Panichi, fan him down with a towel.
Afterward, he slipped into a custom T-shirt that featured himself pictured with Kobe Bryant, the late NBA great who inspired him to keep raising the bar. But even so, Bryant gave up basketball at 37. Ivanišević said Djokovic was already talking about playing in the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, at which point Djokovic will be 41. Brady was 44 when he played his last NFL game; clearly, Djokovic, who has yet to put a definite timeline on the end of his career, thinks he can beat that easily.
“Eventually one day I will leave tennis in about 23, 24 years,” he joked. “And there are going to be new young players coming up. Until then, I guess you’ll see me a bit more.”